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The top U.S. and coalition commander in Iraq says he expects to continue reducing the number of American troops in the country during the next several months, but the big reduction will come next year, after the Iraqi election in January. General Ray Odierno spoke to reporters at the Pentagon.
General Odierno had already announced he would send 4,000 troops home ahead of schedule this month, and he says several thousand more will come home by the end of the year. "We are continuing to deliberately reduce our presence in Iraq. And I think it'll deliberately reduce a bit more before the end of the year. It'll be somewhere between 110 (and) 120,000 by the end of the year," he said.
He said another unit will come out in January, but he wants to be sure Iraq is stable after the election before beginning the major withdrawal probably in March, with the goal of reaching 50,000 or fewer by August. He said the Iraqi security forces are becoming more professional, but he said he is still concerned about efforts by some local and tribal leaders to influence the army and the police in order to push their own agendas.
General Odierno said he was on his way to meet with President Barack Obama, and that when he comes to Washington one of his goals is to make sure that as attention shifts to the war in Afghanistan, the need for continued efforts in Iraq is not forgotten. "What I want to make sure is we don't lose focus on where we're at in Iraq, and people understand that, that we have made some progress and we really have an opportunity here and we don't want to lose that opportunity," he said.
General Odierno said the new stability in Iraq becomes less fragile every day, but he says it is still "a work in progress." He said peaceful elections and a peaceful transition to a new government would go a long way toward solidifying Iraqi stability.
But he also warned of situations that could push the country back into sectarian violence, including continuing attacks by the al-Qaida in Iraq terrorist group, Arab-Kurd tensions and meddling by Iran. The general said Iran's ongoing training and supply effort for Shiite insurgents in Iraq is still "significant," but he said it is more limited than in the past because many of the Iraqi groups allied with Iran have been defeated.
General Odierno declined to be drawn into the debate in Washington over future strategy for Afghanistan. But pointing to a chart that showed a decline in violence in Iraq in recent years, he said he would not have supported a plan to reduce troop strength and fight terrorists with special forces and air power when violence was high three years ago. Some officials, analysts and members of Congress have advocated such a limited approach for Afghanistan, but senior military officers oppose it.